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S. Korean Embassy in Russia denies ransom was paid to Taliban

RIA Novosti

31/08/2007 15:42 MOSCOW, August 31 (RIA Novosti) - South Korea's embassy in Moscow denied reports that Seoul paid a ransom to Taliban insurgents to secure the release of Korean Christian volunteers in central Afghanistan.

After a deal reached at direct talks on Tuesday, the remaining 19 hostages were released over the following two days. Of the original 23 Koreans held since July 19, two men were executed by the Taliban in late July, and two women were released earlier this month.

A spokesman for the embassy told RIA Novosti: "No ransom was paid," contrary to rumors that millions of dollars in cash were handed over to the militants.

At the face-to-face negotiations with the Taliban, Seoul reiterated its pledge to withdraw its contingent of around 200 medics and engineers from Afghanistan, and agreed to ban all Korean Christian mission work in the Muslim country. The Taliban backed down from an earlier demand for the release of its fighters. Seoul insists that no other behind-the-scenes deals were reached.

South Korean Presidential Spokesman Cheon Ho-seon was quoted by the country's Yonhap news agency as saying: "There is no secret agreement with the Taliban other than the already announced conditions for the hostage release."

The Taliban also denied that money had changed hands. In the past, governments have come under strong international criticism for resorting to cash bribes to secure the release of hostages, over fears that payments provide an incentive for further kidnappings, and enable insurgents to buy arms. In March the Italian government reportedly paid a $2 million ransom for a photographer abducted by the Taliban, and brokered an agreement with Kabul for the release of five Islamist insurgents.

After the Koreans were released, a reporter for Qatar-based Al Jazeera, Alan Fisher, said: "I spoke to one senior Afghan authority who, while not confirming the figure, did say that money was paid - that the South Koreans had paid cash to the Taliban." The reporter said that according to rumors, around $20 million had changed hands.

Korean newspaper Choson Ilbo quoted a "foreign diplomatic source" based in Seoul as saying: "I understand that the Korean government had allocated $70 million before beginning negotiations for the release of the hostages. But it's not clear what exact amount of ransom was actually delivered."

The Korean volunteers were abducted when the Taliban hi-jacked their bus en route from Kabul to Kandahar on a humanitarian mission. The church they belong to denied Taliban accusations that the volunteers were in the country to carry out mission work, and said they were engaged in aid work in hospitals.

The hostages released Wednesday and Thursday were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, and are expected to fly back to Korea via Dubai on Sunday.

All South Korean nationals have been banned by Seoul from traveling to the war-torn country. The church which sent the volunteers has come under harsh criticism from the Korean public for putting the group at risk. The father of one of the murdered hostages has threatened legal action against the church.

After the release, the Taliban announced that it would carry out more abductions in the future. The group is still holding a German engineer and four Afghan colleagues who were seized a day before the Koreans.



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